Mike Johnson suffers embarrassing defeat over government spying bill Trump wanted to kill

House votes on spending package to prevent partial government shutdown © EPA

Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson watched his party revolt on another key rule vote as the House voted on reforms to the US’s domestic surveillance system (FISA).

A rebellion led by members of the House Freedom Caucus tanked a vote on Wednesday to advance the legislation, angry that the proposed reforms would not require FBI agents to acquire a warrant from a judge to access the communications of Americans. Disgruntled members assembled on the House steps after the rule vote failed and accused Mr Johnson of putting his thumb on the scale against an amendment that would have made that key change to the legislation.

Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign for president was surveilled by the FBI after it was accused of potentially communicating or colluding with Russia, opened up a major offensive in favour of tighter reforms of the legislation and is thought to have contributed to the defeat of the vote.


Speaker Johnson and his allies had warned at Wednesday’s GOP conference meeting that a passage of a clean bill to renew the program was the likely outcome of today’s vote failing.

“We will regroup and formulate another plan,” the speaker told reporters after the vote failed.

He added: “We can’t allow this important provision to expire.”

But members of the Freedom Caucus who spoke to reporters after the vote failed pointed fingers at Mr Johnson for failing to bring them on board.

“The Speaker of the House put his finger on the scale against the amendment, and that’s pretty much the story,” Rep Chip Roy of Texas said in a gaggle.

“We should put the right bill on the floor. We can do it as soon as tomorrow.”

Scott Perry of Pennsylvania also levelled criticism at the speaker: “It’s the same old establishment swap tactics that we dealt with under John Boehner and then under Paul Ryan. We are done with that.”

Others who spoke after the vote, like Florida Rep Byron Donalds, characterised the setback on Wednesday as part of political “sausagemaking” and not a sign of greater dysfunction within the chamber. Mr Donalds was one of 19 Republicans who voted against the rule to move the legislation forward.

He added his own concerns about FISA: “You had the FBI violate the law almost 300,000 times in the FISA process. That has to be reformed. And that’s not a Republican thing, a Democrat thing, that is fundamental to the Constitution of the United States and to the civil liberties of the American people.”

None of the assembled conservatives were willing to broach the possibility of latching on to a motion to vacate the speakership filed by Marjorie Taylor Greene when asked by reporters. Ms Greene’s resolution has yet to pick up a single Republican ally, while some Democrats have signalled that they could be moved to vote against it.

“I’m not going to go down that road right now,” said Mr Roy.

Republicans were set to gather again this afternoon to plot a course forward on the FISA reauthorisation bill. Ms Greene and Mr Johnson also met, their first one-on-one since the Georgia representative filed her motion to vacate, but did not emerge with their disagreement resolved.

“We didn’t walk out with a deal. I explained to him that, and he acknowledged, that as a Republican member of the House, I pretty much have the best view of how the base feels and what Republican voters want,” she said at a gaggle.

While clear policy differences are present within the GOP conference and always have been, the signs of a greater inability to pass legislation are evident within the chamber. Funding votes continue to pass the chamber with the support of Democrats in the minority often against the wishes of conservatives who consistently push for deeper spending cuts or other policy riders, as the majority struggles to win votes on its own priorities. At the same time, a weariness is evident in the chamber as conservatives back away from threats to replace Mr Johnson with another Republican.

Advocates for civil liberties have long warned that the FISA system presents a danger to Americans whose communications are caught up in the surveillance of foreign persons. Under current law, a warrant is not required to view the communications of foreign persons, but in many cases, the collection of that data includes communications with Americans.

Should the law expire on 19 April without reauthorisation from Congress, the FBI will lose legal authority to conduct warrantless surveillance of people living abroad. The agency has also come out against the requirement of a warrant to access communications with Americans, stating that the delays would gut the effectiveness of the law.

“While it is imperative that we ensure this critical authority of 702 does not lapse, we also must not undercut the effectiveness of this essential tool with a warrant requirement or some similar restriction, paralyzing our ability to tackle fast-moving threats,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday.

Source: The Independent